Playing a self-described “man child” in new ITV drama Flesh and Blood, Russell Tovey talks toxic masculinity, the trauma you go through as an actor and his obsession with art.
Tovey has spent years forging a career on stage and on screen, starting his career as the Rudge in the Alan Bennett play The History Boys.
Since then his career has gone from strength to strength, playing a moralistic werewolf in Being Human, a love-struck twenty-something in Him and Her and a former MI6 agent in Quantico.
His latest project is ITV four-part family drama, Flesh and Blood, which follows three adult siblings Jake (Russell Tovey), Helen (Claudia Blakley) and Natalie (Lydia Leonard), whose lives are thrown into disarray when their recently widowed mum, Vivien (Francesca Annis), begins a relationship with new man Mark (Stephen Rea).
The siblings struggle to cope with Vivien being so quick to move on from their late father and the happiness of her marriage to him is brought into question as new and old secrets emerge and the family confronts some hard truths.
Family dynamics is something that has always drawn Tovey to a script and he saw Flesh and Blood as the “great family dynamic,” allowing him to explore the emotional connections people have with their parents and siblings which “fascinated” him.
When discussing the three siblings in the series, Tovey described their behaviour akin to that of teenagers.
“These are three siblings who see each other all the time, but know fuck all about each other,” he said. “They’ve got so much trauma going on in each of their separate lives, but they see it as a weakness to let people in.”
Jake isn’t without his flaws though and is dealing with a gambling addiction, which has led to the separation from his wife and put a strain on his relationship with his children.
“I think he’s a man child, in the words of Kate Bush,” Tovey explained. “He’s desperately unhappy and all he wants is to be loved, but he can’t accept it in the right way and every relationship in his life is surface.”
Tovey found playing a character he defined as a “loveable, damaged, dickhead” rewarding for him as an actor, further describing Jake as a man who has so much pride, but doesn’t know how to communicate or express the love he feels, so ends up hurting those closest to him.
"I think toxic masculinity is definitely a handle you could put on Jake, because of his ego and masculinity he doesn't ask for help,” he said.
“He’s a survivor and I think he’s definitely someone who’s going to have a terrible crash later on in life.”
Looking after his own mental health is something Tovey has prioritised more over the years.
“I like being pushed and challenged, but as I’ve gotten older I think I’ve recognised I need to have more of a work life balance and make sure that life still has as much of a priority.”
For Tovey, part of ensuring he keeps a work life balance is by indulging in his passion for art.
Initially he collected work from British based female artists, he bought a Tracey Emin monoprint with his first pay check from The History Boys, but now has a more international outlook.
“I love supporting emerging artists because you really feel like you have an effect on their life and their career… it feels like you’re really playing a part in their development and in their future,” said Tovey animatedly.
Tovey’s love of art lead him to start a podcast, called Talk Art, with his friend and gallerist Robert Diament. The show explores the world of art through interviews with artists, curators, gallerists and celebrity special guests.
“Podcasting has become a second career, but it’s also a passion project,” Tovey enthused leaning forwards. “We did it to see what would happen and it’s just snowballed. We both curate it, I come to [Diament] with ideas, he comes to me with ideas,” enthused Tovey.
Tovey described the opportunity to have complete control over something that he had created as “magic”.
A magic he hopes to replicate in the two TV shows he has written, which are currently in development.
“One’s a comedy and one’s a drama,” he reveals. “They’re about family dynamics, the relationships between siblings, the relationships with parents and how not communicating can really fuck you up.”
When it comes to his own preferred method of acting, Tovey said for him, plays and the theatre are the most important thing.
“Theatre has really changed directions for me in my career and I will always choose a play over anything else.”
His next play will take him to Broadway for a new adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? alongside Laurie Metcalf and Rupert Everett.
“I feel excited to get back to New York,” said Tovey, “especially in the art world - there’s so much going on and just getting back on stage again and doing this play, I’m really excited about that.”
Tovey is not just busy making a name for himself in the art world, later this year he takes the lead role in ITV drama, Because of the Night, written by Neil Cross, the man behind Luther.
The series is about a man with past secrets that have come back to haunt him and was a role Tovey described as a “gift”, but also very emotionally draining.
“A lot of the scenes are like having panic attacks and a lot of anxiety, covering up stuff, crying, screaming, then you finish one scene and you’re onto the next one.
“You trick your body into thinking it’s going through these traumas and you do slightly go through these traumas.”
Tovey has been acting since he was 11 and although he still clearly has a love for the craft, with so many other talents, he is redefining the role of actor.
The whole series of Flesh and Blood is available on demand on the ITV hub.